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May 21, 2004
Post: Material Witness Will Prove Abuse Localized

The Washington Post's Jackie Spinner analyzes the plea deal that Spc. Jeremy Sivits completed with his conviction and sentencing at his court-martial yesterday in Baghdad and concludes that he will make a powerful witness for prosecutors in upcoming cases:

Spc. Jeremy Sivits's tearful apology and no-excuse testimony at his court-martial on Wednesday will make him a credible witness against other soldiers charged with mistreating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and could undermine arguments that they were simply following orders, military legal experts said Thursday.

Sivits, the first of seven U.S. soldiers charged with prisoner abuse to be convicted, told an Army judge that he knew what he was doing was wrong, saying, "sir, I am truly sorry. I am sorry for what I've done."

The 24-year-old Army reservist agreed to testify against his fellow soldiers in the 372nd Military Police Company in exchange for a lighter sentence. A judge ordered him to spend a year in jail for failing to stop the abuse and for taking a photograph of prisoners being tormented.

More accurately, Sivits agreed to cooperate in return for lowered specifications at his court-martial, not for sentencing leniency per se. His attorney attempted to mitigate the sentencing by submitted the Taguba report and hint that the conclusions would assist the judge in finding that the responsibility lies elsewhere for the abuse. The judge noted that he had plenty of time, took twenty minutes to read through the Taguba report -- and promptly sentenced Sivits to the maximum allowable time for the charges filed against him.Spinner notes that this indicates a lack of sympathy towards the entire notion of shared responsibility in the military; Sivits himself acknowledged that he knew what he did was wrong, but participated anyway.

One legal expert, quoted at the end of the article, questions Sivits' value in other courts-martial by claiming that his participation was limited to a single hour, buried within two months of abuses at Abu Ghraib. However, Sivits' testimony will bury the notion that their unit had been ordered to abuse prisoners, especially in the sexually sadistic manner that the soldiers used. Other experts Spinner quotes are more pessimistic about the remaining soldiers' chances for successfully defending themselves against Sivits' testimony:

Sivits "made it appear he was genuinely sorry," said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and a former Air Force lawyer. "It gave him a fairly substantial amount of credibility." ... Sivits's testimony "is going to make some of them think seriously about pleading" guilty, Saltzburg said.

David Sheldon, a Washington civilian who acts as a defense attorney in military courts, said Sivits helped the Army prosecution in another way. By identifying himself as one of the photographers of the hundreds of images taken of detainees and their alleged abusers, Sivits has laid a foundation for allowing the photos to be admitted as evidence, Sheldon said.

And, as I noted above, Sheldon also agrees that the tough sentence handed down to Sivits -- who, after all, is cooperating -- shows that the Army will not me merciful in its sentencing. I expect that most of the Abu Ghraib sadists will start offering plea deals, and the military would probably prefer to negotiate rather than extend the notoriety of the abuses. The only one for whom negotiation may not work would be Spc. Charles Graner, who appears to have been the ringleader, both in involving other soldiers and in dishing out the abuse.

Convicting Sivits provides a good foundation for the next set of cases. In the meantime, the Pentagon needs to push for a complete accounting for all detention facilities -- training, discipline, and procedures -- in order to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 21, 2004 6:24 AM

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